Peter Thiel built his fortune in Silicon Valley as a founder of PayPal, an early backer of Facebook and a venture capitalist focused on the technology industry. He's living proof of the Bay Area's ability to make billionaires of mortal men.
Using a fraction of his tech billions, Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker Media earlier this year, which eventually led to the company declaring bankruptcy and shutting down Gawker.com. Thiel had held a grudge against the site for years, after he claimed it outed him as gay in 2007. Since the Gawker ruling, Thiel has fielded questions about the ethics of a billionaire effectively using his money to shut down a news organization that he didn't like, a move that some argue violate the site's First Amendment rights. He's responded by calling his $10 million support of Hulk Hogan's lawsuit "one of [the] greater philanthropic things" that he's ever done. Thiel has also said he's backing other, similar lawsuits.
During a Q&A session at the National Press Club today, Thiel explained three key things about the Gawker lawsuit:
First, he detailed how his (mostly secret) funding did not violate freedom of speech or the press. "I strongly believe in the First Amendment," he said. "I believe journalists are a privileged group in our society. They play an important role in getting us information and in the system of checks and balances. But these were not journalists."
Second, he explained his support of Hulk Hogan's lawsuit with the following comment: "If you're middle-class, if you're upper-middle class, if you're a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system. It costs too much."
And third, he said, "My judgement was that Mr. Hogan deserved to have his day in court."
These statements are inherently contradictory and scary. Thiel freely admits that, in his view, the only way to receive justice in the United States is to be extremely wealthy -- at least a double-digit millionaire. He also contends that his involvement in the Gawker lawsuit was not ethically dubious because, after all, he respects the First Amendment. It's the third sentence that's the most jarring: "My judgement was that Mr. Hogan deserved to have his day in court."
His judgement. Not the courts, not a judge, not a jury. One wealthy tech entrepreneur with a vendetta decided that one specific news organization needed to be shut down, and he worked within the US legal system for years to make it happen, pulling strings and funding cases in a way that a vast majority of citizens never could. Thiel decided that Gawker employees were not journalists and therefore didn't deserve First Amendment protection -- and using his Silicon Valley fortune, he turned this opinion into law.
It's an obvious example of wealth, particularly tech money, enabling power over the justice system. It's not a clear violation of the First Amendment -- but it's close enough to spark a contentious debate about the role of money in politics and justice.
Peter Thiel: "If you're a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system. It costs too much." pic.twitter.com/Fo36ZiMR1B— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) October 31, 2016
Thiel even admits that the tech industry, which propelled him into fame and fortune, is out of touch with the rest of the United States. He argues that his home of Silicon Valley enjoyed vast growth over the past decade while the rest of the country didn't have as much success; he says tech industry leaders and companies simply do not represent the entire US -- perhaps forgetting that he is himself a high-profile tech industry leader.
"Silicon Valley deals in the world of bits; most of the economy deals in the world of atoms," he said. "If you're in the world of atoms, you might be very concerned about government regulation. If you're in the world of bits, which is much less regulated, you might be much less concerned about government regulations. So there is this big separation just in terms of what they do."
By his own logic, not only is Thiel a single billionaire bankrolling targeted lawsuits against news organizations that he disagrees with, but he's a poor representative for the rest of the US population. He does not operate in the same world that most Americans do, further skewing his judgement on what constitutes justice.
It's clear that the Gawker stories outing Thiel and distributing Hulk Hogan's sex tape were neither newsworthy nor ethical by journalistic standards. By most accounts, those articles were sensational tabloid spectacles that respectively stigmatized homosexuality and infringed on the privacy of an American citizen.
However, that's not for Thiel or any Bay Area leader to decide. Placing the power to destroy news organizations in the hands of a few vengeful tech billionaires undermines not only the First Amendment, but the entire judicial process. The ruling can be correct while the system remains broken and grossly unfair.
At the National Press Club, Thiel also responded to a question about setting a precedent for other billionaires (or double-digit millionaires) to fund lawsuits against news organizations that they don't like. He said, "Wealthy people shouldn't do that. I think if they try they won't succeed."
Thiel doesn't have to contradict himself this time; he's already won a massive lawsuit against a news company. Either Thiel isn't "wealthy" by his own definition or he believes he's a special class of billionaire, a Bay Area leader, whose tech industry fortune puts him above the law.